We all tend to lean on our prior knowledge when encountering something new. Just as a British wine aficionado might think of Cabernet Franc from Chinon in France while tasting Mencía from Bierzo in Spain, so poetry readers are immediately reminded of predecessors while discovering a poet. We have to fight off these natural tendencies, as they limit our capacity for interpretation and for embracing fresh frames of reference. Moreover, they also encourage lazy critical shorthand from the reviewer.
As a consequence, it’s extremely dangerous for a new poet themselves and/or the blurb for their first pamphlet to embrace just such an approach from the outset. One case in point is Siegfried Baber’s When Love Came to the Cartoon Kid (Telltale Press, 2014). Not only does the title itself offer up an obvious allusion, but the blurb states “Baber sets down his impressive marker: an Armitage for Generation Tweet.”
Such pigeonholing does Baber’s verse a huge disservice. His best poems have the courage to admit an emotional vulnerability far beyond Armitage’s youthful posturing. He’s far less flashy, far more reflective than Armitage was at a similar age. One such example is “A Few Phobias”, which ends as follows:
“…months from now, fear of finding your books
lost between mine. That favourite dress
clinging to my clothes like gossamer.”
The above quote shows Baber’s eye for an image, while also underlining how he harnesses this flair: each arresting turn of phrase is never there just for the sake of it. Furthermore, his homing-in on deliciously judged details sustains his narrative, ensuring its light-footed yet condensed clarity.
Of course, there are one or two occasions when Baber doesn’t quite pull off his poetic leaps, times when he aims too theatrically for a certain denouement. However, even these partial failures are successful in many ways, providing signposts to his development.
The key now is how Siegfried Baber uses When Love Came to the Cartoon Kid as a launching pad for his writing. One or two of the weaker pieces in this chapbook draw on the detritus of popular allusion to lesser effect, but the above-mentioned stronger poems seethe with an idiosyncratic, honest poetic talent that just needs to learn to trust itself and its readers.
I’m sure Baber will very soon get the chance to publish a full collection. I hope he holds back a couple of years longer until he’s got a book that will really take our breath away. I’m already looking forward to it, but the best things in poetry often need to wait.